A tarnished reputation is difficult to overcome. Just ask the Boston Red Sox or the New England Patriots. Along with Lance Armstrong, Rosie Ruiz and Tonya Harding, they have found themselves labeled as cheaters within our current zeitgeist. Just this week, the Red Sox field manager, Alex Cora mutually agreed to part ways after Cora’s name was linked with an elaborate sign-stealing scandal while he served as bench coach with the Houston Astros. This follows a report a few weeks ago that the Patriots were found recording the sidelines of an opposing teams during an NFL game (12 years after being punished for gaining an advantage by acting the same way). The home teams are a bunch of cheaters, calling into question the legitimacy of their championship titles.
Would the Patriots have won all those Super Bowls without that unfair advantage of knowing plays the opposition was planning before they were executed or modifying the air pressure of footballs? Would the Red Sox have won the World Series in 2018 had they not stolen signs and known the pitches they were facing before they were thrown? Sadly, sports fans in Boston can never know for sure. History is now tainted. Reputations are now tarnished. The critics are justified in questioning the integrity of the coaches and key players. The city’s sports heroes will be subject to the consequences of dishonesty for the foreseeable future.
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8 (NIV)
Not surprisingly, the Bible has an ample supply of examples illustrating that cheating is wrong, whether it be swapping out an inferior sacrifice for a suitable one or moving a boundary line or tipping the scales to gain a small advantage. I would argue that Zacchaeus is a prime specimen of the ‘cheater’. Perhaps he contended that everyone was doing it, that it was acceptable to skim a bit off the top of all those tax payments he had received. But that rationale did not mean it was the right thing to do. God’s design and order for human interaction dictates our fair and equitable engagement with others.
In this way, Zacchaeus’s life story becomes a cautionary tale; if you cheat people you will be hated by nearly everyone around you. But Zacchaeus’s response to grace also becomes a template for all of us with a less-than-stellar reputation; after being confronted with his wrong-doing, he acted in repentance, showed regret and offered restitution. Almost immediately after witnessing the love of Christ, he changes the trajectory of his life; after years of focusing on selfish gain, he gives half of his accumulated wealth to others. Then he characterizes himself as a cheater, owning and admitting his sin. Finally, he compensates those he cheated sacrificially.
So, how does one overcome a tarnished reputation? Follow the biblical example of the wee and greedy tax collector. Admit your sin, change your priorities and repay what has been taken away. I hope we all can learn from the public fall from grace of our professional sports teams.
It seems hard to believe that “Y2K” was twenty years ago. Do you remember all the troubles that were anticipated, all because experts were not sure if computers, which were programmed with a two-digit place setting for the year, would operate as normal when they registered 2000 or crash when they reverted to 1900? We were filled with anxiety as we waited to see if the utilities would continue to operate and banking software would still be running after the ball dropped. As it turned out, we worried for nothing: the world was unphased by the change in millennium as all the electronic components of 21st century life performed as required.
Much has happened over the past ten years for my family as well. We enjoyed 4 graduations, we celebrated a number of big birthdays (including both Jeanine and I turning 50 in the 2010s), we moved residences three times, and we travelled more than a hundred thousand miles. If I can be honest, I have worried about a great deal of things over the past ten years – will the kids finish High School, be accepted into a college of their choice and come home on occasion? Will we be able to find a suitable residence for our family’s needs? Will the days ahead be kind? I thank God that the previous decades have been filled with great blessing.
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Luke 12:25-26 (NIV)
I have been joking with my wife and children that the Mike of 2020 is “easy, breezy” (which my youngest now has co-opted as “Covergirl Dad”), but my resolution is serious – I am consciously trying to release my inner anxiety about the things that I cannot control and release the reins on the things that I can control; thus, I will be easy and breezy. This desire to be more relaxed has made me inventory the things that I control, which turns out to be a surprisingly short list: I control my decisions, my reactions and my responses.
This year, and decade, I will make a concerted effort to make and maintain wise decisions, and not regularly revisiting the angst inherent in the process. I will try to express genuine reactions which are filled with grace and edification. I will offer thoughtful and profitable responses, refusing to delve into the bad habit of pessimism. I will not worry about whether I made the right decision, the appropriate reaction or the proper response. I will ‘go with the flow”. And in order to do this, I will seek the Spirit’s leading each new day and trust His transforming power at work within me.
If I hope to cease in my worrying, if I am dedicated to an easy, breezy disposition, I will need to place all my angst and anxiety somewhere. So I am claiming 1 Peter 5:7 as my memory verse for 2020:
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)
For the past month, as part of a reading group, I have been reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It is a fabulously engrossing book that deals with the reality of life and death, the limits of the current medical system and the conversations that every person should have before it is too late. One of the lasting lessons I received from Dr. Gawande’s words is to recognize what is important; it has caused me to wrestle with the reality of my own demise and to value every moment of cogency that God enables me to enjoy.
As I reflect upon these truths this morning and as I prepare for Thanksgiving next week, I am finding myself thankful for the moments I share with my family (immediate and extended, formed by blood and by friendship). I am thankful for productivity (in my vocation and in my avocations). I am thankful for opportunity (and the availability of the best in medicine, academia and ministry no more than a subway ride away). I am thankful for the guidance of God since last Thanksgiving (among other things, in leading my family to a new residence and two of my boys to new schools). I am thankful for the blessings I enjoy every day.
There is one more thing for which I am thankful, something never touched upon in the remarkable tome penned by the good doctor. I am thankful for the Gospel. I am thankful for the witness verified truth of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. I am thankful for the long-established and prophetic plan of God’s salvation through Christ. I am thankful for the availability of the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of the disobedient which reached a wretch like me. I am thankful that my life-steps were directed by the Almighty to hear the truth of the Lord and accept Him as my personal Savior. I am thankful for those who shared, and continue to share, this good news with those who are dangerously unaware of their eternal destiny. I am thankful that I will participate in blissful life after my physical death.
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Romans 5:15
Each and every one of us reading this post has something for which to give thanks (if nothing else, we all have access to the vast worldwide web). For what things, truths and people are you thankful this year? What moments have brought you delight since last you sat at bounty’s table? What gifts have been bestowed upon you that have filled you with gratitude? In whatever way you will celebrate our thoroughly North American observance of Thanksgiving, I hope you will spend some time reflecting upon and remembering all the blessings you have been given.
I wish you all the happiness of Thanksgiving!
Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically tested than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being. Experts confirm, over and over again, that those who would consider themselves happy are those who also consider themselves grateful.
Even though there is a preponderance of evidence for the benefits of thankfulness, most people do not practice gratitude. In a survey done by Janice Kaplan for her book The Gratitude Diaries, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life … less than half regularly express gratitude.” When was the last time you said anything more than an obligatory “Thank You” to the waitstaff at a restaurant or a wave of appreciation for the kind soul who held the door open for you at the bank? Have you experienced the benefits of a lifestyle of gratitude?
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16
The words of Paul tell us that those who have been transformed buy the good news of Christ will be singing to God with gratitude. This act of singing may be figurative, or it may be a first century way of saying what the researchers of today contend: gratitude brings a melody to mind. It is quite possible that Paul knew the same link between happiness and gratitude that Kaplan has now written about. It is likely that the God who created us, in all our complexity, inspired the Apostle to pen the connection between singing and gratitude woven into our DNA.
Perhaps you would accept a challenge, an experiment to test the veracity of modern sociology and ancient biblical interpretation: we could practice expressing our gratitude with the objective of placing a song on our lips. We could be thankful, to God to others, for the blessings they bring into our lives. We could show appreciation for the acts of service friends and strangers perform on our behalf. We could return kindness when we experience it. We could discover whether or not these disciplines of gratitude make us happier and allow us to feel greater contentment. We could be happier.
In this season of harvest, we have much to be thankful for: most of us have more than we need, whether it be as little as a bed instead of a dirt floor or as much as a home with as many bathrooms as inhabitants. God has orchestrated all the functions of nature to allow our bellies to be filled and our bodies to be useful. We, each and every one of us, have reason to express gratitude. It is a good time to give thanks unto the Lord.
If you listened to my message on Sunday, I mentioned in passing an ordeal I had been going through regarding a prescription refill. I had exhausted all my refills, so I called the health center to schedule a physical; I was informed that my PCP was no longer at that facility and I was reassigned; I was given the next available appointment – and a 7 week wait. At this point, I asked if I could get my prescriptions refilled and was given assurances they were in process. A few days later, as I ran out of one of my medications, I called the pharmacy, who was still waiting for authorization, so day after day I called and the health center marked my request as urgent. 10 days after I began the process, I determinedly walked over to the facility, talked to the receptionist, face-to-face, and she took my request to the back, returning after a while with the good news that my prescriptions were sent off to the pharmacy; a few hours later I finally received what I needed to maintain my health.
In hindsight, I have come to realize the importance of face-to-face interactions. I have come to understand the power of looking into another person’s eyes and voicing a genuine frustration. I have come to appreciate standing in front of another human being and receiving assurances that I have been heard and valued. After interacting with disembodied voices for more than a week with no progress, seeing another human being and being seen by another human being was what was necessary for my issues to be resolved. And now, because of technological conveniences, I fear that face-to-face interactions are few and far between.
I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing something important because we do not interact with one another in person. We can maintain contact with friends through social media. We can check in on family members with a text. We can experience spiritual growth through an app. We can shop for nearly all our essentials via the internet. We can receive instruction on nearly every topic by watching YouTube. In most areas of life (professional service calls are a singular exception), it is not required that we actually engage in human interactions…but it is desperately needed.
I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name. 3 John 14 (NIV)
Take it from one who has recently improved his physical health by meeting with someone face-to-face, your efforts in actual engagement will be rewarded. Take the risk and put the phone down. Sit a spell with a friend over a cup of tea or walk together along a river. Pop into a local hardware store and talk to the owner behind the counter about thermostats or trash cans. Attend a Bible study, even if it is filled with strangers. Talking to someone will benefit your relational health, learning with someone will enhance your intellectual health, worshipping with someone will develop your spiritual health. Let’s get together, face-to-face, for your sake and mine.
A few days after we moved to our new neighborhood a few weeks ago, we decided to be a bit adventurous and go out to a restaurant down the street from us. We chose to go to Yaowarat Road, an eatery named for a street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which specializes in Thai/Chinese cuisine. When we first arrived and read the menu, I thought about going elsewhere, as there were few dishes I understood or thought we would enjoy. But we ordered what we comprehended (as well as some Pad Thai, which was not on the menu) and it was all delicious. It was a wonderful meal that I could have missed if I was unwilling to take a risk.
I was reminded about my supper at Yaowarat Road as I studied about a practice the Bible calls “the breaking of bread”. This phrase is complex: it is typically a reference to the ordinance of communion (referencing the Lord’s breaking the bread at the Passover table); it could, however, be referring to any meal shared by the people of God (as would be the case of Passover, which involves breaking bread, and the feeding of the five thousand, which also specifically states that the Lord broke the loaves). It is this more general meaning that I have been reflecting upon.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. Mark 6:41 (NIV)
One of the most unifying aspects of ministry is dining together, the time when the church comes together to break bread. A fascinating dynamic is at work when we share a meal, whether it be at a pot-luck or a restaurant. Our choices of cuisine say something about us: they show our preferences and our tolerances, they reveal our habits and our palates, and they demonstrate our knowledge and our experiences. When we share a meal with another, we display ourselves on that plate. Serving up jerk chicken tells us something. Ordering dessert tells us something else. Eating off another plate tells us yet something more.
Breaking bread also expresses our acceptance of one another. When we eat what another person has prepared or ordered, we are saying that your traditions and tastes matter. We might use more (or less) seasoning or another cut of meat or a different protein, if we were given the choice. But we allow another person to build the menu and we are given a glimpse of themselves. If we are lucky, we discover something delectable that we knew nothing about; if not, we might need an antacid for a day or two. Either way, our culinary knowledge and our fellowship is enlarged.
So, take a risk and break bread with someone – invite them to your home or your local diner and eat a meal with a fellow saint. If you are hesitant, I invite you to join me for dinner at the church this Wednesday night for one of my favorites. I hope you’ll have a heaping helping of hospitality.
The other day, as part of my Sunday School preparation, I came across a word that I had no idea what it meant: remonstration. It turns out that remonstration is the act or process of saying or pleading in protest, objection, or disapproval. It is a good word, a word whose definition I never would have guessed on my own; I would have proposed that it meant “a repeated demonstration”, which we now know would be wrong, thus incurring an aware reader’s remonstration. It is a good reminder that words have meaning and the words we utter must be treated with respect.
Anthropologists contend that words are the containers of culture. We frame our communities by our words. My geographic community is shaped by words like rotary, bureau and cellar. My religious community is shaped by words like sin, savior and faith. My social community is shaped by words like gender, inclusion and sanctuary. The same is true for my financial community, my educational community and my familial community; each has its own words with their own nuanced meanings that those in my community understand like inside jokes. Therefore, the words we use in very conversation have both conventional definitions and cultural meanings.
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18
The wisdom of Solomon, recorded nearly three thousand years ago, stands in stark opposition to the present-day adage about sticks and stones. Words, improperly handled, can hurt us. Words, properly handed, can heal us. This requires that when we communicate with others, we use our words accurately (conveying the correct definition) and contextually (conveying the cultural meaning). That means we need to be careful about our word choices and our audience’s perceptions. That means we need to pay attention to what we are saying as well as what is being heard. We need to be reminded every once in a while that it is a lie when we say that words can never hurt us.
Every Sunday, I wrestle with words – both with what I want to say and what the congregation will hear – as I seek to share the truth of scripture. The Bible is filled with terms that can be troublesome: what is heard when we utter words like slave, miracle, submission, murder, sin, church, prophesy, tongues, evil or perfect. It is a constant battle to be accurate with the biblical text and be relevant with the listening culture. We need to be careful that we know what we are saying and that we know what we are being understood as saying. I encourage you to grapple with words, too.
This brings me back to remonstration, or what I would classify as the contact sport of the internet. We certainly owe those we hold dear the responsibility of voicing our opposition to wrongdoing. But we owe them the respect of remonstrating without injury. We need to choose our words carefully, making sure we know what we are saying and what is being said.
As I mentioned in previous posts, my family moved about a month ago, but that is not quite accurate. In all actuality, we are still in the process of moving. We are still unpacking boxes, rearranging furniture and repairing window coverings. Because of the size of the rooms and the placement of radiators and closets, we’ve been faced with making decisions about what we keep, what we shed and what we repurpose. We have had to determine whether a shelving unit is a better fit in one room or in another. We have had to experiment with the placement of dishes and bookshelves.
In the process, I have realized a few things: that we are not required to hold onto everything, that many things can have multiple uses and that a few things are non-negotiable. As we run out of shelf-space, books and baubles that we carried from our previous residence have become donations for the church’s yard sale. As we assessed our counter-space, kitchen carts were stacked and became an insert for a linen closet. Along the way, we came across pictures and memory-rich items that we had forgotten we had. We are removing what we no longer need, reshaping what we have and respecting what we cannot live without.
Our home, a work in progress, reminds me of my own soul.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. John 15:2
This verse from John is a snippet of a longer parable of Jesus which describes a vine, a gardener and a branch. From this story we know that Jesus is the vine, the Father is the gardener and we are the branches. We are living in connection to Jesus and the Father is regularly pruning us: we are not the ones who determine what is beneficial in keeping and what we is not, God is. He is searching our souls and determines what is best lopped off and what is best remaining.
Like our domestic situation, I am convinced that God is continually exploring our living situation and expunging the things that are no longer needed, exposing what will remain and extending our joy. He is regularly taking away our selfish attitudes and our self-interested motivations. He is regularly reshaping our spiritual activities and our spiritual gifts. He is reproducing fruit in our lives, all for His glory. At the end of the day, He enables us to enjoy the abundant life He offers to all those who accept His pruning.
With the blessing of hindsight, I am sure that old and broken parts of me have been removed by God with the skills of a surgeon, that aspects of my makeup have been reassembled and rehabilitated by God with the skills of a master craftsman, and that I have become more fruitful than I have ever imagined – all through His abiding presence in my life. As I place and replace the things in our home, I pray I remember the one who dwells in me.
On Monday, my wife and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary. According to Hallmark.com (the worldwide source of information ‘when you care enough to send the very best’), the gift for this anniversary is pearls. I find it funny how random some of these yearly suggestions are: wood is to be given on year 5; appliances are appropriate for year 18; tools are the traditional gift for year 29. Jeanine and I are non-traditional in this regard, I guess. We tend to mark the years of marriage by enjoying more sentimental gestures, such as thoughtful cards and fancy dinners without the children.
Truth be told, the gifts of a long marriage are not given on anniversaries, but rather every day in between. Jeanine and I have been married for more that half our lives and, it can be reasonably asserted, we are not the same people who stood before a minister three decades ago. We were bright-eyed and optimistic, confident that love conquers all. Over the years, the light in our eyes has dimmed a bit and we are a touch more practical now, but with age comes the certainty that love does indeed conquer all. That certainty, that calm assurance, that we have each other and know each other is, in my opinion, more precious than pearls.
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Proverbs 31:10
I do not thank God as often as I should for Jeanine, this completely different-than-me angel who has blessed my life for more than 35 years. I am so appreciative that she complements my weaknesses with her strengths and accentuates my abilities with her own. She has lovingly challenged me to be a better man, a better husband and a better father. She has willingly, with her typical encouragement, endured my career change and seven moves while raising four wonderful children without complaint. God has given me an equal partner in life who has brought comfort and cleanliness and made our house a home. Again, I do not thank God as often as I should.
As we age and mature, we change. I thank God that Jeanine and I have grown together and not apart. I thank God that we enjoy one another’s company more now than ever, appreciate one another’s voices more now than ever and savor one another’s refinement more now than ever. I could not have imagined the beauty of our union when we first met at a Friendly’s in the early 1980s. And I am not too proud to say that I have gained the most in our marriage (which compels me to strive to appreciate to an even greater degree this precious gift of my wife of noble character).
Finally, I thank God for the demonstration of sacrificial love that Christ provides which serves as a template for my wife’s and my relationship. I thank God that we have committed to do the hard work of willful submission to one another. I thank God for the challenges we have faced and the strength we have found in our bond.
My prayer is that we would all have occasion to celebrate these bonds.
For me and my family, the last 6 weeks have been a lesson in trust. It included answering a Craig’s List ad for an apartment rental, reserving a truck from U-Haul during their busiest weekend of the year, taking one son to freshman orientation 50 miles away and registering another son for Middle school in a new town. At every step along the way I worried that I was just building what amounted to sandcastles as I waited for the tide to come in and wash our plans away. My mind ran through every negative scenario that would leave us without a truck or a roof or an address necessary for school enrollment.
While my thoughts spiraled downward, every single detail relative to all these moving parts of our life had positive outcomes; truth be told, most of the details were actually more favorable than I could have anticipated. The realtor handling our new apartment offered (without provocation) to reduce both his fee and the monthly rent. The representative at U-Haul made available (with little provocation) the truck for an additional 18 hours. The college orientation was so well-structured that David was moved in about 15 minutes after we arrived on campus. The placement exam and enrollment process for Joshua was flawless. At every turn, we found blessing where I was fearing barriers.
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Genesis 12:1 (NIV)
Looking back over what has transpired over the past few months, I am yet again confronted with my own weaknesses: that I trust God too little and fear uncertainty too much. This is all in direct contradiction to what I have experienced over and over again: God continually allows my feet to fall in favorable places – through the lights and through the shadows – and consistently teaches me that I am wasting too much energy worrying about things I ought not contemplate. God is faithful even when I have little faith. God is trustworthy even if I have trouble trusting anyone but myself.
God is good, whether I know it or not. He knows where we are, He knows where we are going and He knows how He will get us there. He knows our worries and concerns and provides comforts and consolations. My trouble is that I trust what I can see. I am a master of the short game and I think that life is a sprint. If it is right in front of me, I can accept it. But God plays a long game and life is a marathon. There are aspects of my life that I know nothing about (things that are miles down the road and years from materializing) but that are perfectly ordered by our omniscient and almighty God.
I thank the Lord for the lessons I have learned in recent days: that I am woefully inadequate to attend to all the details of life, that God has unfathomable blessings in store for those who obey Him and that I need to trust Him more. O Lord, help my little faith.